Voices

Titian_-_Wisdom_-_WGA22907

Wisdom by Titian [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Voices.

So many voices.

All wanting my attention…

–the professional solicitor raising money for an entity I might have vaguely heard of.

–the advertiser suggesting their product can offer me security, contentment, sexual satisfaction, health.

–the pundit trying to gain more views and following by provocation, pulling on the strings of emotion so that I will keep clicking.

–the media personality trying to keep my attention by arousing my sense of outrage over everything from product defects to people who pose a threat.

–the politicians who play upon both my frustrations and aspirations to garner my vote, even though in the end, they may do little to address either, only deepening my disillusionment.

So many voices.

I wonder if they drown out the voice I most need to hear. This is a voice that doesn’t join the clamor nor tries to drown it out, but to capture the attention of those who realize that life isn’t found in the clamor. It is a voice that asks questions, probing us to explore the meaning of a life well-lived and what it means to live such a life in our broadband, two hundred channel, smartphone media world. It’s a voice that bids me to a life beyond being safe, prosperous, or hip; to ask the questions of what it means to seek not only our own flourishing but those of the neighbor, whether the one on my street, or the one with whom I share my planet’s food, water, and atmosphere. It’s a voice bidding me to a life of goodness, truth, and beauty, to work with skill and excellence and yet modesty, realizing it’s all but a small part of a larger plan. It’s the voice that pierces that clamor to help me understand the time in which I live.

I call it the voice of wisdom.

Where can we go to find wisdom in the midst of the clamor? I wonder if this is actually the wrong question. I wonder if perhaps the prior question is do I hunger and thirst for something more than the clamoring voices are offering? Do I value wisdom more than a flush bank account and all the baubles of affluence by which we are lured? Do I tremble when I realize the capacity I have for both great good and great folly, and that somehow I am accountable, whether to God, myself, or simply the rest of humanity, what the writer of Proverbs might have called, “the fear of the Lord?”

Alan Jacobs has written recently of the demise of the Christian intellectual, the long history of whom stretches from Augustine and Aquinas to C.S. Lewis and Reinhold Niebuhr. Now I will be the first to admit that not all intellectuals are wise, as I warned my son in his youth that you can be very smart and not very wise. But I wonder in the distraction of the clamor if we have lost sight of the value of the wise voices who may help us interpret the times and how we might live well in them. I equally wonder if such voices have retreated from the public square because they have been shouted down as anachronisms from a benighted past.

Perhaps the beginning is to listen for the voices of wisdom among us…

–it could be an elder in a senior facility, who has seen a good deal of life, and while failing of body retains the wisdom of years.

–perhaps it is found in the lives of those who have suffered, who know the loss of what others count precious, and the qualities of character and the intangibles of goodness that remain.

–there are the religious teachers among us–not the big flashy media personalities–but those who combine prayer and reflection on sacred scripture with caring for people in all the exigencies of life.

–and there are the voices inscribed, whether the writers of sacred scripture, or those who have thought deeply on the human condition.

Proverbs 8:1-3 speaks of “Lady Wisdom” in these words:

Does not wisdom call?
    Does not understanding raise her voice?
On the heights beside the way,
    at the crossroads she takes her stand;
beside the gates in front of the town,
    at the entrance of the portals she cries aloud (ESV)

The matter is not the lack of wisdom for Lady Wisdom may be found wherever we look. The question is will we hear her voice in the clamor of so many.

Voices.

[Acknowledgement: my thanks for the inspiration for this post go to Pastor Rich and a conversation with a real life Sophia.]

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Midway Memories

DiRussos

Father and son at DiRusso’s

The 170th Canfield Fair starts next Wednesday. And hearing of this brings back memories that stretch from childhood until the early years of our son’s marriage. I wonder if it is like this for you:

  • Going to the fair as a child and seeing all the lights at night, particularly from the top of the ferris wheel and experiencing a whole new sense of wonder.
  • Seeing real live farm animals, smelling them, and realizing they don’t have the same sense of privacy we do when they pee and poop!
  • Having my first footlong hotdog, having never heard of such a think but thinking, “what a wonderful idea.”
  • Going to the fair with a girl and trying (and not usually succeeding) to win her a prize in the games of skill. Eye-hand coordination was never my strong suit.
  • Strolling the midway with a girl, sharing a cup of fair fries drizzled with vinegar.
  • Working one year in college at an old-time evangelist’s booth showing the curious these glass boxes designed to foster the fear of hell so they would turn to Jesus. I still like encouraging people to “turn to Jesus”, but decided this was not the way I wanted to go about it.
  • Going to some of the grandstand shows. I remember seeing the Beach Boys one year, Kenny Loggins another, and countless tractor pulls. Can we say “deaf”.
  • Then there were all those vendors under the grandstand. We would get a can of carpet cleaner from one of them that really worked!
  • For many years, we used the fair for an annual reunion with college friends. We started when our kids were in strollers and this went until our kids were getting married.
  • We always had to stop at DiRusso’s for an Italian Sausage sandwich. And once my son’s stomach could handle it, he joined the fun.
  • For a period of time, we could buy the kids a ride wristband and turn ’em loose for a few hours so that we could look at some of the exhibits like the art show and various 4-H exhibits that they would consider b-o-r-i-n-g.
  • Speaking of the art exhibit, the fair was responsible for my wife showing one of her paintings in public for the first timed, at the urging of our artist friend.
  • We grew up in the city but it was amazing to watch young boys and girls ride horses and put them through their paces competing for various ribbons. Then we’d walk through the barns and see them caring for these animals, sometimes sleeping in an adjacent stall or a trailer and being impressed with how responsible they were.
  • I think I always loved the nights the most, with all the lights of rides and stands. There seemed to be a haze over the midway–a combination of all the things being fried and the humidity of a late summer night.

The Fair was always the last fling of summer for us. School didn’t start until after Labor Day back then. Even as adults, the Fair marked the end of the easier pace of summer as our kids started back to school, and everyone got back from vacation at work. I think for all of us around Youngstown, it was, and still is for those who live there, the last big celebration of summer.

Review: The Idea Factory

The Idea Factory

The Idea Factory, Jon Gertner. New York: The Penguin Press, 2012.

Summary: An account of the history of Bell Labs, the inventions and innovations they produced, and the confluence of people, resources, and the growth of the telecommunications revolution that drove it all.

The transistor. Digitized information. The laser. Microwave communications. The first communication satellite. Cellular technology. Fiber optic cable. All of these are the components of the digital telecommunications revolution we have witnessed over the last thirty years. All of these trace their origins back to one organization, Bell Labs. And the application of these technological breakthroughs ultimately contributed to the breakup of AT&T’s monopoly over telecommunications, and eventually turned the labs into a shadow of its former self.

Jon Gertner traces this history interweaving an account of the people, the organization, the innovations, and the factors the fueled this incredible flourishing of research. It all begins with AT&T’s vision of universal connectivity that fueled a research enterprise that relentless pursued solutions to the problems associated with realizing that vision. Significantly, it had to do with the virtual monopoly AT&T enjoyed until the 1980s and the huge sums of money from those monthly phone bills that provided a reliable source of research funding that allowed researchers the luxury of devoting years to studying, theorizing, experimenting, and perfecting new technologies.

Like many great organizations, Bell Labs enjoyed great leadership under the direction of Mervyn Kelly, one of the key figures profiled in this work. Kelly, in turn gathered around him an incredible array of mathematicians, physicists, chemists, and engineers and created an ethos that unleashed an incredible period of creativity and innovation from the end of World War II up into the 1960’s. Critical to this ethos was bringing these people to work side by side and to have informal access to one another as they worked on a variety of problems.

Gertner introduces us to this brilliant cast of scientists as he chronicles their inventions. We meet William Shockley and the team of John Bardeen and Walter Brattain who worked with him to invent the transistor. This was Shockley’s golden hour, doing work that would lead to a Nobel Prize. Later he leaves to form a failed company in Silicon Valley, attracting the talent that would make the Valley what it is today. He ends his life spouting unscientific views about race.

Claude Shannon develops the foundations of information theory that contribute to the digital revolution while riding about the labs on a unicycle, juggling, and inventing an array of toys and machines like an electronic mouse that can learn to navigate a maze. John Pierce was known as “the instigator,” for his capacity to envision new solutions, launch efforts to innovate and then restlessly move on. One of those was the first communications satellite, Telstar, fueled by solar cells also developed at Bell Labs. Charles H. Townes develops the first lasers, whose worked was added to those who envisioned using light to transmit huge volumes of information and those who created the pure glass cables that became fiber-optic technology to carry these transmissions. Doug Ring and his team at Holmdel Labs wrote papers and later set up transmission towers around the New Jersey countryside, developing cellular technology.

There are places, beginning with the West Street labs, where Kelly, and most of the others began their careers, Kelly in the vacuum tube lab. There is the Murray Hill campus in New Jersey where many of the technological innovations were developed. Most interesting of all was the “turkey shed” building at the Holmdel Labs where much of the work on microwave and cellular communication occurred. Eventually this quirky building was replace with an Eero Saarinen designed building, a rectangular black box, now sitting abandoned.

What is left of Bell Labs today is an industrial lab, serving more the needs of the moment than inventing the technology of the future. Gertner traces the demise of the great research lab to the very technology they developed, licensed to competitors at low prices as the cost of maintaining the AT& T monopoly for many years, until the competitors broke up the empire that fueled and funded this research enterprise.

The intriguing question that we are left with is whether there could be another “Bell Labs?” The concept of an enterprise that can afford to bring together a talented cadre of scientists, give them interesting problems and the time and resources to pursue them seems a luxury in this era of scarce research funding. Gertner considers the possibilities of something like this coming together around biomedical technology, big data, or energy research. The casual contact and collaboration of people across disciplines in a place like Bell Labs seems a far cry from our often siloed universities. But who can afford to create such an entity? Microsoft? Apple? Google? What is also clear, though, from this account was the pivotal role Mervyn Kelly played in recognizing and deploying incredibly intelligent and talented people to pursue challenging questions. There was a human factor that money and space alone cannot replace.

Whether such an enterprise, perhaps in a new configuration could develop is an interesting question. I wonder if today, it will be a network of enterprises and researchers working on related questions. Whatever is the case, The Idea Factory might be required reading for understanding the milieu in which innovation thrives.

 

Review: Called to Community

Called to community

Called to CommunityCharles E. Moore (ed.). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2016.

Summary: A collection of readings on Christian community centered around the Bruderhof Community but also including theologians and writers from throughout church history.

The Bruderhof communities, beginning with the initial ones formed by Eberhard Arnold, are in the vanguard of a movement among Christians longing for a greater depth of community than ordinarily experienced in congregational life, including intentional communities of Christians sharing accommodations and life together. This book represents a collection of writings published by Plough, the Bruderhof publishing arm, including Arnold and other Bruderhof authors, but also a diverse collection of writers on community including Benedict of Nursia, Eugene Peterson, George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jean Vanier of the L’Arche communities. This volume, organized into 52 chapters that may be used by groups over a year, brings together some of the best writing by these and a number of other writers on community.

The book is organized into four parts. The first is “A Call to Community”. Gerhard Lohfink’s statement in the chapter on Embodiment was a stunner:

“For many Christians it would not be a turning point in their lives if they decided, one day, to stop praying tomorrow, to leave off going to church next Sunday….”

This section challenges us to consider the call to something that is central rather than peripheral to our lives.

The next part is on “Forming Community.” It includes Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s telling observations on “Idealism” from his Life Together, and a wonderful contribution from fellow Ohio Art Gish on “Surrender.”

Part Three discusses “Life in Community.” The chapter on “Deeds” includes Mother Teresa talking about not despising small things, and John F. Alexander’s challenge to focus not on using gifts but cleaning toilets. Working through issues of “Irritations”, “Differences”, and “Conflict” the section concludes with essays by Richard Foster and Jean Vanier about “Celebration.”

The last section is titled “Beyond the Community”. One of the most moving essays is that by Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice describing how they “interrupted” a series of five minute reports at a World Congress to wash one another’s feet before the assembly. Several chapters in this section talk about boundaries and the real tension between compassion and self-care that allows one to continue to minister and recognizes personal limits. The collection ends with Dorothy Day’s incisive comments on “Mercy.”

The book includes a study guide with questions and scripture readings for each chapter as well as sources for further study. It seems the perfect resource for a group who wants to go deeper in community, whether they have formed a more intentional community or not.

One of the things that commends this collection is its catholicity, and the stature of those whose writings are included. To listen to those who have lived community across the centuries is to drink at a deep well of wisdom. This is not just the latest “new monastics” thinking or the latest offerings from the Emergent Church. The call to community is challenging, and yet the recognition of the real challenges of community both tempers naive enthusiasm and offers wise counsel to those who pursue intentional communities out of faithfulness to Christ.

______________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Scandal of Domestic Violence

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By Concha Garcia Hernandez [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copylef/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I have long been aware of the global prevalence of violence against women but have had my eyes opened to this afresh by No Place for Abuse by Catherine Clark Kroeger and Nancy Nason-Clark. The stark truth is that globally 1 in 3 women will face physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner, or sexual violence from someone who is not their partner (Source: World Health Organization). The statistics are not much better in the U.S., where 1 in 4 women will experience severe violence at the hands of a partner in their lives. A woman is beaten every 9 seconds. (Source: Huffington Post, 30 Shocking Domestic Violence Statistics that Remind us It’s An Epidemic).

The authors of the book are writing particularly for church contexts, where the incidence of domestic violence may be nearly as high, and in some contexts may actually be exacerbated by theological teaching. Since a number of you who follow this blog attend churches fairly regularly, consider the possibility that roughly 25 percent of those present have experienced domestic violence at some time, and that it is likely that someone may be suffering this, possibly in silence, at present. I do consider this a scandal, one where real lives are endangered, where trauma is going unhealed, where oppression is allowed to go unchecked, where wrongdoing is concealed, and because of all this, the church is robbed of spiritual power.

A statement by the authors of this book caught my eye:

“Interviews and focus groups with large numbers of men who have acted abusively, women who have been abused and those friends and clergy who have walked alongside them reveal that when clergy preach a message condemning family violence, discuss abuse in their premarital counseling, offer support, give referral suggestions, provide ongoing encouragement and hold those who act abusively accountable for their actions, the impact is profound.”

This is significant in light of a study by Sojourners cited in a Christianity Today article, that 65 percent of pastors have spoken one or fewer times about domestic and sexual violence and ten percent have never spoken about it. And sometimes church teaching can exacerbate the problem. While there is a divide between egalitarians and complementarians, thoughtful people in both camps would agree categorically in condemning spousal violence. However, teaching that emphasizes the need for husbands to assert their authority and their need to make their wives submit (the latter for which there is no basis in scripture) may encourage forceful means and be used to justify violence (most complementarians would not teach this). Likewise, the way divorce may be taught about in some contexts may lead women to stay in dangerous situations.

It seems that there are some important steps pastors and church leaders can take:

  • One is to educate oneself on the incidence of domestic violence, how lay caregivers can offer support (often other women in a church community can offer significant support), the resources available to refer both the abused and abusers for help, and how to implement plans to make these available to those suffering abuse.
  • The silence around domestic violence must be broken, and done so regularly, communicating the unacceptability of perpetrating violence, that one who is treated violently never deserves that treatment, and communicating avenues for both the abused and abuser to acknowledge what is happening and find help.
  • Offer training for all church staff and Sunday School teachers.
  • Include information and discussion about domestic violence in all pre-marital counselling.
  • Include training in youth programs on dating violence.

As a man, it seems to me that we could do more to talk about the fruit of the Spirit (the virtues that result from the presence of God’s Spirit in the lives of all Christ followers) as virtues equally applicable to men, whatever our cultural ideals of “masculinity.” Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) are qualities commended by a man (Paul) for men and women. Among the requirements the Apostle sets for church leaders is that they are “self controlled…not violent but gentle” (1 Timothy 3:2, 3). Do we uphold people of both gender, and in particular, men who exemplify these qualities, as models for others? Are these the defining qualities of biblical manhood, indeed, biblical personhood?

It saddens me that the reality is that few women apart from very young children anywhere in the world live without the lingering fear and wariness of the possibility of sexual or physical violence against them. It disturbs me that simply because of my gender, I represent a possible threat. It says something of how broken is our fallen world and it staggers me. I honestly don’t know how to change the world in this instance. But I do want to work with others who share my faith commitments to change the church, so that, in the words of the title of the book I’m reading, it is “no place for abuse.” It would be no small thing for the global church to address itself to these matters, and if so, this would surely have ripple effects more widely. And who knows what power of God might be unleashed when our sisters know we are committed to their physical and emotional safety, and to fully respect their humanity and giftedness among us. May it be so!

Apologies 101

ApologyWe’ve seen a recent example of attempts to apologize gone bad with one of our Olympic athletes. He is hardly the first public figure to have a hard time with apologies. And he is a great illustration of the truth that a bad apology may actually be worse than keeping your mouth shut (at least until you can render a good apology). I wonder if we do better.

Bad apologies.

Bad apologies may look like apologies because they use the words “I’m sorry” but they do not express sincere and unqualified remorse and own up to our own responsibility for what we’ve done wrong and how we’ve hurt someone. These kind of apologies often take the form of:

  • Blaming the victim. These usually follow the form of “I’m sorry you feel that way.” The person is really saying that the person they’ve offended is the problem. It is patronizing, it shifts blame, and only intensifies the situation.
  • Excusing bad behavior. A person may say something like, “I’m sorry for what I said, but if you knew how late I was up with the kids, you’d shoot your mouth off too.” Maybe and maybe not. It’s another way of shifting responsibility and excusing what is actually not excusable.
  • Distorting the truth of one’s offense. The athlete mentioned above, in a TV interview said he “over-exaggerated” his story. He would have done far better to say, “I lied to cover up my own inebriated behavior and this reflected badly on my Brazilian hosts.”

Preparing to make a good apology.

Good apologies don’t just happen. They involve self-reflective and empathic preparation. Here are some of the things I’ve tried to consider when I’ve needed to apologize–which I’ve had to do many times!

  • Do I understand and can I clearly articulate what I’ve said or done wrong without sugar-coating it or excusing it or justifying it. If I’m not clear on what I’ve done wrong, it will be a false apology. Either I’m apologizing for something I’ve not done, or I am inadequately apologizing for what I have done.
  • Do I understand how my words or actions might have affected the other person? What if the tables were turned and this were done to me. How would I feel? We should also be prepared that we may not know all of the impact of our words or actions, and be prepared to listen, to take that on board and to express our understanding of that additional impact.
  • Am I truly sorry for what I have done and its effects, or do I simply want the bad feelings to go away? Getting to “truly sorry” often means taking account of the damage to a relationship that means something to me that my words or actions caused.
  • Am I prepared to make appropriate amends for what I have done wrong? This could include financial repayment of damages, acknowledging our responsibility if our words and actions have falsely damaged the reputation of another, and accepting any legal penalties associated with my action if I have broken the law.
  • Am I willing to commit myself to specific actions to rebuild trust in the relationship if the other is so disposed?

If you’ve not worked through questions like these, you are not ready to make a good apology and you will probably just make things worse. Working through these questions doesn’t guarantee that another will receive your apology but it will raise the possibility that they will consider, if this is your object, that you are well and truly sorry.

If there is the possibility of legal action, one may want to consult with a trained mediator or attorney before going to the other party to understand how a statement of apology may affect such legal action. Most matters don’t rise to this level and a good apology often averts more serious conflict.

Making the good apology. 

You need to find your own words to express several things, and you might even write, or memorize at least your initial words.

  • The apology proper. This is saying “I’m sorry” and keeping the language “I” language.
  • A statement of how you have offended that acknowledges your responsibility. “I dominated the conversation in our meeting and cut you off several times when you tried to make a point. That was wrong and I had no excuse for acting like that.”
  • A statement that acknowledges awareness of how this hurt the other party. “The way I acted must have communicated that I didn’t think what you had to say was very important. It robbed our group of your ideas and contribution. Are there other ways this hurt you?”
  • Discuss how you could make amends or rebuild trust in the relationship. “I don’t want this to happen in future meetings. I will try to limit my own contributions and not interrupt you. Are there other things that would be helpful to your participation in our meetings?”

A few other things:

  • Neither rush or delay apologizing. Don’t try to apologize in the heat of the moment. But don’t let it ride either. Try to talk on the same day if possible.
  • Do it in person. This is not the time to rely on email.
  • Do it when you won’t be rushed.
  • Do it privately, unless your offense was a public offense.
  • Try to listen twice as much as you speak.

I think the key to a good apology, and one of the hardest things for most of us, myself included, is to admit that we were wrong, particularly if we were not the only ones. Yet I find that when I go into self-protection mode, everyone else does as well. A good friend of mine who is a good leader and a peacemaker, says that in such situations, he always assumes that it is his turn to go first. Acknowledging wrong can be liberating. It unlocks conflict, it can liberate us from a futile narrative, and open up possibilities of a different future. Most of all it can lead to the healing of the torn fabric of relationships. It all begins with a good apology.

 

Review: Broke

Broke

Broke, Caryn Rivadeneira. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: The author reflects on the experience of losing nearly all financially, and what she learned by being broke and broken about the provision and abundance of God.

I think I may be an atypical reader of this book. From the endorsements, all by women, it appears that this is a book written by a woman for a female audience. It may even have been marketed as such. And I think this a big mistake. This is an important book for men to read because our relationship to money, and how that shapes our relationship to God is a vital matter for men to consider. It is my observation that for many men, where God has broken through in their lives is when they were broke, and broken, financially and cast upon the resources of God, and the Christian community.

That is the story of this book. Caryn Rivadeneira and her husband Rafi began with a storybook marriage. He was an investment manager, she a talented, college-educated writer. Together, on their wedding day, they had a bright future before them. They were the people who liked to give generously and help others. And then the bottom fell out as Rafi tired of his work, and then in the economic downturn, had difficulties finding other work, and Caryn just couldn’t make it on her writing gigs. Suddenly, they were dependent on the help of family and gifts and loans of friends just to stay afloat.

She recounts her struggle as it seems God doesn’t hear her cries to be delivered from their financial straits, and then the gradual and growing realization that, for a while at least, there were other things God wanted to be up to in her life. Coming to terms with mystery. Understanding that prayers for daily bread can be just that. Learning that the things we may run from, like enrolling your children in public schools, may be God’s invitation. Learning to wait for God when the shock and numbness of loss leave one feeling bereft of belief. She learns anew to keep company with Jesus and to cultivate the imagination of faith, and sometimes to be dazzled with the wonder of all the goodness that remains in the world, even in one’s “brokenness.”

The journey she describes is a journey many men face as well. Though there are more two-income families, the lingering sense of men’s call to be the “breadwinner” and to forge one’s sense of identity around doing this well may need to yield at some point to a deeper awareness of God as the provider of bread, of the gifts of life one does not work for, and an identity finds its roots at a deeper level that what one does and earns. If there was one thing I wish there had been more of was that we would have heard more of Rafi’s experience of this time, more of how they traversed this season together. I don’t know the reasons that Caryn chose to write this book primarily around her own perspective. Perhaps it was to respect her husband’s journey. Whatever the case, it may be that the “like and unlike” narrative of a woman’s struggle with financial destitution may speak at a different level to men than simply another man’s perspective.

We are left without a clear resolution of their financial challenges although we get the sense that things have gotten better. More important than finding financial security, Rivadeneira finds God anew. She writes:

     “We survived. I kept breathing. I kept stepping. And somewhere in the cracks, along the ragged edges of my marriage, in the desperate gasps of sudden poverty and all the questions that came with it, there was God. Big and glittering, soft and warm, smiling and beckoning. Somehow in the shimmers of all that, I began to taste and see, and feel and know, and hear and smell that God is good, and he was there in the broke bits. That he was using our time near the poverty line, treading in debt, to draw me near, to make me over, to answer a prayer bigger than my material needs. In this season of spiritual and financial brokenness, in this time of longing to know what God was up to and to experience his goodness and presence, God worked me over by showing me where and how I could find him. Which is all over the place. In every last thing, He satisfied my wonderlust–my unquenchable desire to feel his presence and to experience his glory. And I found him. And I found him good.”

The hope this book offers is not a “prosperity gospel” but the abundance of God Himself. Sometimes we just have to be broke before we find it.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Elephant Ears

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Elephant ears with different toppings. By Arge300exx (Own work) [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I don’t know about you but as Canfield Fair time approaches, I find myself hankering for an elephant ear, or at least a few bites of one! This was always the perfect snack food for an afternoon at the fair. You could stroll down one of the midways with your friends and share one of these all around. The light, crispy fried dough with sugar and cinnamon on top was absolutely delectable, and after you finished the ear, there was the finger licking! And there was always enough to go around for at least four of you, and if you wanted more, someone else in your group could buy.

I never worked at one of the concessions, but I can only imagine that this was hot work, rolling out dough and pulling ears out of the frying oil. I also suspect that it was pretty hard to avoid a few burns, hopefully none severe. God bless those folks who worked all day to serve us up such tasty fair food.

Of course there are a number of recipes online for how to make these at home. Here is a video from AllRecipes posted on YouTube. My mouth was watering just watching them make this. I liked the idea of 6 tablespoons of shortening or butter in this recipe (and then more butter on top of the fried dough which helps the sugar and cinnamon mix to stick).

This is another one of those foods that goes under a variety of names. At the Canfield Fair, you wouldn’t know what people were talking about if you called them anything other than elephant ears. But they are also called fried dough (which is what they are but not particularly imaginative), doughboys, fry bread, scones (unlike the scones I’m familiar with), flying saucers (I can see that), beaver tails, buñuelos, and pizza fritte. I kind of like beaver tails but wonder if they are shaped differently to look more like a beaver tail.

After you finished the elephant ear, it was time to wash it down with a lemon shake-up (more sugar!).  Together, they made for the perfect treat on a hot fair afternoon, not too heavy on the stomach for all those rides, and not to hard on the wallet either.

If you make it to the Fair this year, eat an elephant ear for me!

Does Barnes & Noble Need to Think Like an Indie?

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Barnes & Noble former flagship store, closed in 2014. By Beyond My Ken (Own Work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses-SA/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Barnes & Noble just fired their CEO, Ron Boire, hired just over a year ago, as sales figures for the chain continue to decline, attributed to store closings, poor NOOK sales, and declines in sales at BN.com. At the same time, Barnes & Noble is experimenting with “concept stores” with larger cafés that serve alcohol.

I wonder if Barnes & Noble needs to start thinking much more like the indie booksellers, who are actually opening stores, seeing at least modest sale increases and are surviving the greatly exaggerated “death of reading.” First of all, I don’t think they are ever going to compete with the uber online bookseller. That despite the fact that BN.com has, in my opinion a much cleaner look and integrates well with its local stores, where you can order an item to be reserved in your local store (if it is in stock) and pick it up in an hour. Prime Now, which involves a Prime subscription and will deliver in two hours to homes in many areas has very limited selections in books eligible for such delivery, although they offer many other items not available through BN.com.

From all I can tell, indie booksellers work hard to draw people into their stores, particularly repeat customers. It seems that there are several key components to this:

  • Quality service from booksellers who love books. These are people who help you find a book, call you when a book you might like is in their store, and recommend books that fit your reading tastes. There are some of us who find the human touch much more appealing than an algorithm. I have to admit, the booksellers I’ve dealt with at our local Barnes & Noble stores have fit this description in many regards, although it seems I rarely deal with the same person twice.
  • Author events. Surveying our local Barnes & Noble store websites, only one of the stores in my area had any author events scheduled. This store had three posted between August 18 and mid-November 2016. The other events at all stores were events for children–a lot of events for children. I will give them credit for encouraging youthful readers, but what about events for teen readers, for young adult readers, for graphic novel readers? What about events for plain old adult readers?
  • Host book clubs and help launch and source community-based groups. According to a Publishers Weekly article, such groups have been an important part of indie stores bottom line. I could not find any evidence of efforts to encourage book clubs on local Barnes & Noble store websites, nor have I seen this in stores.
  • Host other fun reading events. Admittedly some stores have capitalized on parties around the latest Harry Potter release. Silent reading parties have become trendy in some places, a place to go and read quietly with others, perhaps with wine and cheese (which may be part of the idea for stores serving alcohol and having expanded cafés).
  • Use the web and social media not just to sell stuff but to relate to customers. Many indie stores, particularly used and rare stores in out-of-the-way places have a significant percentage of sales online. I think of one store I’ve ordered from on several occasions in an out-of-the-way part of eastern PA whose owner I’ve interacted with regularly via blogs and Facebook because of shared book interests. I’m a customer because of those interactions and even promote (with no personal benefit) his store on this site.
  • Give managers and booksellers a stake beyond just keeping their jobs. For indie sellers, this is their livelihood, lucrative or not. I could not ascertain from online searching whether Barnes & Noble provides any kind of sales or profit-sharing incentives. With that, I would also give a certain amount of creative latitude to these folks to market to their particular community’s needs and interests. There should be rewards for creativity and hard work beyond salaries or hourly wages, if it benefits the bottom line.

I don’t know what to say about Nook. It strikes me as the Betamax of the e-reader world–superior in many respects to Kindle in both hardware and software aspects, but a loser in the marketplace. Part of the challenge is the leveling off and decline of e-sales in general. Unless they can create the marketing cachet enjoyed by Apple products by combining elegance and technology innovations, I personally think they need to cut their losses and support existing e-readers and users of their phone and tablet apps.

I’d like to see Barnes & Noble make it. They occupy a niche distinctive from used bookstores as the only seller of a deep and wide selection of new books physically accessible in many communities. I just hope that they will decide to focus significant attention on the core of their business, and not just on fancier cafés. The indie sellers seem to understand that outstanding customer service and relations are key to their survival. I hope Barnes & Noble has not gotten too big to understand the same.

Review: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

Lone Ranger and Tonto

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Sherman Alexie. New York: Grove Press, 2013 (20th Anniversary edition, first published 1993).

Summary: A collection of short stories all relating to growing up on a Spokane Indian reservation.

Sherman Alexie was born in 1966 and grew up on a Spokane Indian reservation. This collection of short stories followed a critically acclaimed book of poetry, and so is one of Alexie’s earliest works. In the introduction to the twentieth anniversary edition, Alexie describes these stories as “thinly disguised memoir.” And to be truthful, it has that feel to it. He describes his style as “reservation realism” and in this collection one finds a mix of the starkly realistic and the fantastic.

What is starkly realistic is his portrayal of life on the reservation. Of course there is a strong web of friendships, families, kinship and love relationships. There is the sense of a people attempting to keep the core of a cultural memory together when much of its substance has been gutted. It’s also a portrayal of financial destitution, un- and under-employment, fighting, government issue cheese and housing, and alcohol and substance abuse. Alexie admits that his own father was an alcoholic and that in his extended family only a dozen are currently sober and only a few that never drank.

One of the most interesting characters in this whole mix is Thomas Builds-the-Fire, who in “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix” accompanies the narrator and covers most of the cost of flying from Spokane to Phoenix to re-cover his alcoholic father’s remains. Thomas is a story-teller to whom no one listens. In a subsequent story more on the fantastic, Kafka-esque side, Thomas goes on trial for his storytelling, going to prison for murder as he tells the story in first person of another Indian who had killed two soldiers a century before.

From the absurd, Alexie moves to the sad in telling the story of the death of Samuel Builds-the-Fire, a hotel maid who uses his money to pay Indian prostitutes to take the day off, is laid off, gets drunk for the first time in his life, trips and falls on railroad tracks and does not get up as an oncoming train approaches.

There is the funny and sad. The title says it all in “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore.” In another, the narrator talks about his father, who heard Jimi Hendrix play the “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, and whose son would always turn it on for him when he arrived home from a night of drinking. In “Amusements” a young couple at a carnival spot an old drunk from the reservation and load him onto a coaster, on which he rides until he comes to and gets sick to his stomach.

So much of this seems like autobiography. “Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation” begins in 1966, chronicles the growing up of a boy dropped on his head (Alexie was hydrocephalic) yet has a fairly normal boyhood while the narrator plays basketball, similar to Alexie’s high school self. “Junior Polatkin’s Wild West Show” describes a young man who went off to Gonzaga, felt out of place and left without graduating. Alexie also went to Gonzaga, leaving after two years, although he completed a degree at Washington State.

Alexie gives us twenty-four stories that explore the life of a people displaced, consigned to make some sense of life in a world they’ve not chosen, fighting addictions that may have been the worst depredation of them all upon their lives. You have accounts of people who want to live, love and make their way in the world while holding onto a cultural heritage, a way of living in the world out of step with the American culture in which they are embedded. It is admittedly one perspective but it does begin to help us understand “the American experience” of these First Peoples and the stark realities of reservation life.

  [Note: Adult language and situations.]